The New Westminster school district is hoping March break will help to hit the reset button on COVID-19 exposures in schools.
The past month has seen a steady uptick in exposures after a relatively uneventful January, with a total of 19 exposure notifications sent out in the month between Feb. 9 and now. Those notifications affected six schools: New Westminster Secondary School with seven, Glenbrook Middle School with five, Richard McBride Elementary with three, Queensborough Middle School with two, and Qayqayt and F.W. Howay elementary schools with one apiece.
At the March 9 school board meeting, superintendent Karim Hachlaf noted the change from his February report to the board, when he had said the COVID-19 trend in the district was moving in the right direction.
“It seems I jinxed myself … because certainly the trend for this period saw an increase in notifications – nothing I would say I’m alarmed with, given some of the trends we’re seeing in the metro area,” Hachlaf told trustees. “We know that when we see higher than normal transmission within the community, we see the same result at our schools.”
He’s hoping the March break (which runs from March 15 to 26) will see that trend reverse.
“Fingers crossed as we head into the break and warmer weather,” he said. “We are optimistic that after the break we can certainly hopefully see decreased numbers with transmission, and we’ll monitor that closely.”
MORE ISOLATION NOTICES
The past month has also seen more isolation notices issued in local schools.
The Qayqayt Elementary exposure led to an entire class being sent into isolation – just the second time an isolation notice has been issued for a full class in the district. (The first was before Christmas, when two classes at NWSS went into the winter break in isolation.)
Isolation notices have also been sent out to individual people in a number of cases: three people at Glenbrook, two at McBride, and a total of 20 at NWSS in connection with three separate exposures (affecting two, three and 15 individuals, respectively).
“What Fraser Health has done is taken a far more nuanced approach when it comes to self-isolation notice, and far more focused,” Hachlaf said, noting that affected individuals in a class or cohort are identified through the contact tracing process.
That process proved useful in the district’s first case of a COVID-19 variant of concern, which showed up at NWSS in connection with a Feb. 19 exposure. In that case, Hachlaf noted, some people had already been ordered to self-isolate by the time the case was confirmed to be a variant of concern.
“In fact, the contacts that were identified to self-isolate were the same individuals that then were contacted by Fraser Health to get further testing in relation to the variant of concern,” he said.
SUPPORT FOR STUDENTS
Trustee Danielle Connelly asked what the district does to support students sent into self-isolation. She pointed out isolation can particularly impact high school students who are studying on the quarter system – meaning that a short period of isolation can lead to a lot of missed learning.
Hachlaf assured trustees that district schools support all students who are sent into self-isolation so their instruction can continue from home.
“We had done extensive planning with (schools) to work with their staffs to know that we really had to be online-ready for anything – on a self-isolation notice or, the worst-case scenario, if we received an order to shut down a school for a specified period,” he said.
Trustee Anita Ansari pointed out that, in some cases, parents have pulled their students out of classrooms for periods of time after learning about exposures. She stressed she wants to make sure the district is supporting those students, too, and not just the ones who were ordered by health officials to self-isolate.
“This is a really anxious time for students as well as parents; there can be mental health reasons for why this happens,” she said. “I realize we’re asking a lot of staff, but I do also want to be mindful that parents are making really tough choices based on the level of risk that’s acceptable to their households.”
Hachlaf said the district is committed to supporting all students through what he agreed is a stressful and exhausting time.
“We’re in it together, and I don’t mean to sound clichéd. We’re going to support our families,” he said. “We know there are unique contexts to every family, and we’re not questioning that decision; we want to support them every way we can.”
GRATITUDE FOR STAFF
Trustees took time to acknowledge the efforts of teachers, administrators and support staff in keeping schools running in the face of the pandemic.
“It’s been a stressful couple of weeks, watching the numbers go up, watching the news reports, and it always seems to come steaming at us like a locomotive when we are headed for some time off,” Ansari said. “I really, really wanted to give a lot of gratitude to all the employees in the schools who look chill and look calm, and I know they’re not, so they’re all doing a great job, and I deeply appreciate that.”
Trustee Maya Russell agreed.
“I realize we are basically at the one-year mark … of the province declaring provincial emergency and our schools turning themselves completely upside down to accommodate a pandemic,” she said. “I just wanted to recognize that and extend … my heartfelt thanks.”